Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Caucasus: Aug ‘08

IWPR helps to break media blackout during Georgia’s conflict with Russia.
By IWPR
A news blog IWPR set up to provide balanced coverage of the Georgian war is said to have played an important part in countering an information blockade.


The blog – http://regionalreporters.wordpress.com/ – was launched by the IWPR Georgian office as soon as fighting over the disputed territory of South Ossetia erupted and ran for two weeks.


News reports posted on the site were republished on hundreds of other sites, making it one of the top-ranked Russian-language blogs.


The blog was created as part of the Georgia Regional Media Network project, in response to a wave of cyber-attacks on Georgian servers, as a result of which almost all online media in Georgia were disrupted.


“Soon after the war began, both Georgian and Russian-language web pages were blocked, telephone communication was interrupted and cable television blacked out,” said Madona Jabua, a resident of Zugdidi, a city in western Georgia.


“People were more afraid of the prospect of finding themselves in an information vacuum than of coming under bomb attacks. During the war, [the blog] was the most reliable source of information for me.”


IWPR IT/Technical Manager Mirian Koridze explained how the blog was set up.


“We chose to place our blog on the foreign server worldpress.com in order to protect us against any possible hacker surprises,” said Koridze.


“After the decision to launch a blog was taken, it took us only ten minutes to solve all the technical issues. And within precisely five minutes of its starting to work, we had the first news placed on it. Its first visitors, too, did not [take long] to show up.”


Once up and running, the blog’s popularity quickly spread. It received 20,000 hits on the day of its launch. By the end of the ten-day conflict, the daily figure had exceeded 130,000.


According to one of its editors, Nino Kharadze, the blog quickly attracted contributors.


“Information was contributed in such large quantities that we had no time to verify it all. Photo-coverage of the conflict came in gratis from everywhere in Georgia, as well as from abroad,” she said.


IWPR web editor Giorgi Kupatadze said the blog was produced in the Russian language so that information would be understood by both Russian and Georgian readers, as well as many people abroad.


“I think the blog played an important role not only for Georgian internet users, but also for people, who were abroad at the time and had no access to Georgian media,” said Kupatadze.


In the course of ten days, the blog published up to 550 news pieces and articles, as well as 34 pieces of photo reportage and 7 video reports.


IWPR journalists reported from where the military action was taking place, and tens of volunteers helped to collect and process information for IWPR, alongside the project’s team of editors and journalists.


Poti resident and IWPR-trained journalist Lasha Zarginava said he was one of just two reporters to remain in the Georgian port town after residents fled following the Russian invasion.


For several days, when the region remained in an information vacuum, he worked round-the-clock to report on local developments.


“Poti was bombed [by Russia] for the first time on August 8. By the evening of August 9, the town was empty. The local television and radio were shut down, newspapers stopped [being produced], while national ones stopped [being delivered],” he said.


Zarginava said the lack of information sharpened his sense of responsibility as a journalist.


“During those days, I did not care about my health or life. I only wanted to let people know what was going on in the town,” he said.


When the first bomb hit, Zarginava said he abandoned the article he was writing and went off to the site of the explosion, camera in hand.


When he arrived, he was met with scenes of carnage.


“Pools of blood and several maimed people scattered around were the first thing I saw,” he said.


The journalist said he was torn between reporting on the bombing and helping its victims.


“I tried to be a journalist in the first place, but the people needed help, and everyone who could move was a doctor in those moments,” he said.


Throughout the conflict, IWPR provided an essential outlet for people keen to follow developments in Georgia.


Nodar Megrelishvili, a senior lawyer in the education ministry, said the blog was his main source of information.


“It also provided interesting and unbiased opinions from both local and foreign experts. The information was invariably objective and verified,” he said.


“[The blog’s creators] have definitely done a great job. It was an effective and timely initiative, especially at a time when it was very difficult to obtain unbiased information.”


Dimitri Avaliani, an editor at the newspaper 24 Hours, said the blog was the best source of information available in Georgia during the war, especially after cyber attacks disabled most Georgian news sites.


Avaliani said that many journalists from other countries – including Poland, Russia, Slovenia and Ukraine – called to say how grateful they were that the blog was available.


“I also know that many foreign journalists used the blog’s reports in their own analytical articles. I am a journalist myself, but I must admit that no other outlet has worked as effectively at this time in Georgia as that blog.”


Levan Girsiashvili, another 24 Hours editor, said he frequently read the blog, finding it invaluable at a time when Russian sites were all blocked and Georgian news agencies were not operating.


He said that referred to an article from the blog – a piece from an eyewitness in Ossetia – in his newspaper.


He also cited a piece from Abkhazia, written after it was recognised by Moscow, saying it gave him a valuable insight into the mood in the breakaway province.


“We don’t have any contacts with our Abkhaz colleagues, many of whom avoid cooperation with the Georgian media, which is why I learn many things about Abkhazia from you,” he said.


“[Most importantly] I know that your articles offer many points of view and are not one-sided.”


He said he looked forward to more reports in a similar vein.


“I would like to receive more information from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as from the North Caucasus, where interesting events are taking place,” he said.